- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

While creating the children’s stage classic “Peter Pan,” playwright James M. Barrie grew close to a family of five fatherless boys and their widowed mother. This often heart-rending attachment is dramatized in “Finding Neverland,” a beguiling and poignant new testament to the redemptive power of artistic sublimation.

In the interests of dramatic economy, director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Magee reduce the five Llewelyn-Davies brothers to a quartet, relying on Freddie Highmore’s Peter as the most precocious and articulate. We’re led to believe that Barrie, played by Johnny Depp, envisioned the play specifically as balm for the grief-stricken Llewelyn-Davies family, timed to comfort them through emotional ordeals.

The filmmakers eliminate the initial source of family heartbreak from their account: The ill-fated father, Arthur Llewelyn-Davies, is gone before the movie begins. Although fatally stricken with cancer, he had survived until 1907 — and grew to trust Barrie’s devotion to his wife and children.

The friendships date from Barrie’s chance meeting with the boys and their nanny in Kensington Gardens near the turn of the century. He was accustomed to walking his pet St. Bernard, Porthos. Eventually, Porthos suggested Nana, the extraordinary pet of the Darling family; the boys suggested Pan and his fellow runaways, the Lost Boys of Neverland.

According to the film’s simplified chronology, the family is trying to weather the father’s loss when the brothers become the playmates of the playwright, a grown but elfin and stubbornly childlike man. Estranged from his own wife (Radha Mitchell) and rebounding from a flop, Barrie attaches himself with wholehearted devotion to the boys and their widowed mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet). The Barrie marriage becomes a decisive casualty of this profound alienation of affections, and Sylvia’s widowed mother Evelyn (Julie Christie) remains a holdout until the finale.

In 1910, Sylvia herself fell victim to cancer and died. This blow overlaps with the production of the play, a stunning overnight sensation for skeptical producer Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman). Resigned to having backed a whimsical dud dependent on complicated stagecraft, Frohman finds himself instead admitting on opening night that theatrical magic has materialized before his eyes. The whole company is transported to the Llewelyn-Davies home to re-enact the show for an ailing Sylvia.

The story’s big exaggeration — that “Peter Pan” was a promptly contrived attempt to heal a family loss through the agency of literary imagination — is aided by playful and stirring touches: the boys bouncing on their beds as an inspiration for flying rigs on the stage; the suggestion that Barrie feels comfortable in realms of fantasy; the pathos always associated with watching children mature and outgrow certain kinds of play.

The major shortcoming in an exceptionally literate script is the failure to develop Barrie himself into an eloquent character for pivotal situations. The role seems to go bland and inertly angelic as Mr. Depp tries to carry it gently.

Regarding “Peter Pan” as a benevolent classic is a winning exaggeration. Johnny Depp as a nice but lackluster James Barrie leaves the movie without an adequate protagonist.


TITLE: “Finding Neverland”

RATING: PG (Thematic preoccupation with family tragedy and loss; allusions to marital infidelity)

CREDITS: Directed by Marc Forster. Screenplay by David Magee, based on the play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” by Allan Knee. Cinematography by Roberto Schaefer. Production design by Gemma Jackson. Costume design by Alexandra Byrne. Music by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Theme song by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes


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